Carved in Stone

Brooke Wisdom

July 1, 2010

G is for Gnome

nom (noun): a silent ‘g’ word that really does have something to do with mining

Possibly based on miners from Southeast Germany, ceramic gnomes feature the pointed red hat often worn by these miners

By Bill Langer

Gnomes, dwarfs, and trolls originated in Gräfenroda, a small town in Thuringia, Germany, located deep in the land of fairy tales such as those told by the Brothers Grimm. These diminutive creatures were once considered to be living beings — guards of the earth and the Mineral Kingdom — and were said to have knowledge of hidden treasures and undiscovered ores.

During the 1870s, craftsmen in Gräfenroda began manufacturing high quality, hand-painted ceramic gnomes, which were shipped throughout Europe and much of the rest of the world. Many gnomes were large (some more than 3 feet tall) and beautifully made with exquisite detail in their faces and clothing. Many found their way into the gardens of affluent homes.

Folklore says that the inspiration for gnomes came from small-statured miners in southeast Germany. Even the familiar pointed red hat was a representation of the hat worn by those miners. It is fitting that the images of these protectors of the Mineral Kingdom were enshrined in painted ceramics, a product involving mined materials.

Ceramic gnomes were (and still are) created by a process referred to as slip casting. An original pattern commonly is created from clay (a mined product). A multi-part plaster of Paris mold is made of the pattern. (Plaster of Paris is manufactured from gypsum, a mined product.)

The plaster mold is filled with slip, which is clay that can be poured as a liquid. Water and special chemicals, such as sodium silicate (manufactured from Trona and silica sand, both mined products), are added to clay to reduce its plasticity, thus reducing the water needed to get the clay to flow smoothly.

Plaster of Paris is porous, so when slip is poured into the mold, the plaster absorbs water from the slip, causing clay to collect and thicken where it is in contact with the plaster mold. When sufficient clay has built up on the mold, the remaining slip is drained off. The mold is set aside until the remaining clay dries to a leathery consistency. Then the clay casting is removed from the mold and polished to remove seams and blemishes.

The gnome is fired in a kiln at about 1800° F, after which skilled artists apply paint (made from mined products) to the gnome’s face, beard, clothing, and red hat.

Most of the gnomes produced in Germany in the 19th century were not the merry little folks we see today. That image came about in 1937, when Walt Disney Productions created the animated film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” based on the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Disney’s dwarfs were miners, as depicted by the Brothers Grimm, but had endearing features and cute names; Bashful, Doc, Dopey, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, and Sneezy.

Plastic garden gnomes were first manufactured circa 1960. The little miners took on new activities including fishing, gardening, playing musical instruments, and playing sports. In 1976, Dutch painter Rien Poortvliet and writer Wil Huygen created their famous “Gnomes” book. Poortvliet’s illustrations depicted gnomes as diminutive, stout beings, wearing tall, conical hats; the male gnome always having a long white beard. The gnomes were subsequently modeled as poly-resin figures and were soon in demand worldwide.

Today, gnomes are simply thought of as garden ornaments. But who knows — those miners and guardians of the Mineral Kingdom might hold the secret to the location of your next aggregate operation.

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